The guy lives in a dream world. He is young and fit and fabulously wealthy, with killer good looks, a Porsche parked on one side of his garage and a Lexus on the other. His home is perched on a craggy oceanfront shelf, above the Pacific in Laguna Beach, Calif., a three-story, 3,000-square-foot orchestration of stone, weathered gray wood and floor-to-ceiling windows for watching sunsets, breakers and the endless parade of beautiful women walking the beach below. Ocean breezes are the AC and lapping waves the sound system.
On one of the last, quiet days of his summer vacation, Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson sat at the granite bar in this house that he bought for $2.5 million 2� years ago, scarfing down a lunch of steamed chicken, broccoli and snow peas. Dressed in long, baggy trunks and a white sleeveless T-shirt that sets off his deep tan, Johnson, 28, was a portrait of the successful young single male. The only glitch is that by the standards of his field, he is not yet successful.
For that reason, he can't be completely comfortable living in luxury. He bought the place in January 1999, less than a year after signing a five-year, $25 million contract with the Bills, a windfall based on potential and little else. Before the '98 draft Buffalo traded the ninth pick plus a fourth-rounder to the Jacksonville Jaguars to get him. A fourth-round selection in '95 out of Southern Cal, Johnson had played only six games in three seasons with the Jaguars. Yet other teams had increasing interest in him based on his 6'4", 212-pound body, a live arm, good feet and one game—the '97 season opener, a 28-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in which Johnson completed 20 of 24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 31 yards and another touchdown. "I'll admit it," says Johnson. "I had really good timing."
Not entirely. In addition to the money, Johnson got a three-year quarterback battle with Doug Flutie, a soap opera that divided the Bills' players and was blamed for every bump in last year's 8-8 finish, a performance that led to the firing of coach Wade Phillips after the season. On Feb. 19 and 20 new general manager Tom Donahoe and new coach Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, brought Flutie and Johnson to Buffalo for separate six-hour interviews. On Feb. 28, after weeks of media speculation that the popular and resourceful 38-year-old Flutie (21-9 as a starter in Buffalo, to Johnson's 8-10) would be retained, the Bills cut Flutie and named Johnson the starter in the team's new West Coast offense. "First and foremost," says Donahoe, "we thought he was the better player."
The Bills have played a daring hand, betting that Johnson will blossom with Flutie gone, a gamble with the franchise's short-term fortunes and the fans' fickle emotions. "If the Bills have any kind of a rough start with Rob, there's going to be a serious flap," says John Holecek, a starting inside linebacker for the last three-plus years who was cut in July as part of Williams's switch to a 4-3 scheme. "Buffalo was a Flutie town; everybody identified with him. He was the small guy, and Buffalo likes the underdog."
Thus, as training camps kicked into gear last week, no player in the league was on a hotter seat than Johnson. "That's fine, I'm ready," he says. "The last three years—with two guys who don't get along and have different personalities and different styles playing the same position—it just wasn't any fun."
How ugly was the 2000 season in Buffalo? On Oct. 15, when Johnson went down with a separated right shoulder in a home game against the San Diego Chargers, the crowd cheered. Two weeks later, with Johnson still out, Flutie led the Bills to a 23-20 victory over the New York Jets, and SI published comments from two anonymous Buffalo players criticizing Johnson and insinuating that his quarterback rating was more important to him than winning games. Johnson, certain that Flutie planted at least one of the quotes (Flutie declined through a Chargers' spokesman to be interviewed for this story), confronted Flutie. "I challenged Doug, and he said something to me about Tony Eason being the same [about his statistics]," says Johnson of the former New England Patriots quarterback. "I said, 'I don't give a f—about you and Tony Eason. If you've got something to say to me, say it to my face.' "
In fact, neither of the players quoted was Flutie. It's true that the fans and the media were smitten with Flutie, but many of the players favored him too. Defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who played with Buffalo for the last four years and signed with San Diego in the off-season, says, "Doug is the kind of guy who people want to fight for. He motivates you, makes you feel confident the offense is in good hands. Rob is like this science project from a quarterback laboratory. He looks like a model; he's got the big arm. He's the guy who can throw a ball through a tire from 30 yards away. But he needs experience, and he needs better mental awareness, because in the game that tire is moving fast."
Others, however, supported Johnson. "People took sides, and I was behind Rob from Day One," says center Jerry Ostroski, a seven-year veteran who has started 95 games for the Bills. "He's got a tremendous work ethic, attention to detail. I'm looking forward to this being Rob's team." As Williams points out, "To a man, everybody on this team just wanted a decision at the quarterback position."
Lost in the Flutie worship (and face it, there's probably not a worse athlete in America with whom to engage in a public relations battle than the Hail Mary-throwing, Heisman-winning father of Flutie Flakes) was that Johnson has played well at times. After he sat behind Flutie for the first 15 games of the '99 season and then threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns in a meaningless regular-season-ending win over the Indianapolis Colts, Johnson shockingly got the start in a wild-card playoff game against the Titans. He endured a ferocious beating—"We pounded him all day," recalls Williams—but drove the Bills to what appeared to be the game-winning field goal with 16 seconds left, only to have the Titans pull off the Music City Miracle. Johnson opened the 2000 season with wins over the Titans and the Green Bay Packers and in November returned from the shoulder injury to lead the Bills past the Kansas City Chiefs.